Is your facility a hospitable environment for beginners? Here are some simple things you can do to help welcome new players to the game.
Teaching the skills of tennis is only half the battle. Making new players feel like part of the community, however, is where many facilities and staffs have fallen down through the years. In part, say industry pros, it’s because facilities need to be made more user-friendly. A person who hasn’t taken a lesson yet, for example, can find a tennis court pretty darn intimidating.
“It’s a big factor, especially to a person who is really new, brand new to tennis,” says Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the Tennis Industry Association. “Just imagine going into a shop for a sport you don’t play — a golf pro shop or a ski store or anything else — everything’s a really different language.”
The importance of making new players welcome, she adds, starts with a friendly, courteous and interested staff, but has to extend through the whole facility. Assuming you’re holding beginner clinics and that those new players can borrow racquets free of charge, what else should be done to help them along?
Courts for New Players
Over the years, contractors have given suggestions for ways to furnish tennis facilities in order to enhance the experience. Creating an environment conducive to learning has always been at the top of their list:
- Courts used by beginners should be set up to make allowances for the occasional (and often more than occasional) wild shot. Higher fencing or divider netting will contain most balls and allow the player to feel less intimidated about the possibility of disturbing players on adjacent courts. (The use of equipment advocated by the QuickStart Tennis format, including low-compression balls, can further encourage players to learn shots without fear of losing balls). Consider making courts that are off by themselves, in more isolated areas, the “instruction” courts — many beginners may feel uncomfortable if other players are easily able to eye them as they learn the game.
- The availability of training aids like backboards or hitting walls, or ball machines, can encourage players to come in on their spare time and practice.
- Supervision is key: Those who come for a lesson expect to have an instructor, but new players who are still learning the basics will appreciate a pro’s tips on their form or stroke if they come in to practice. (They’ll also benefit from a welcoming atmosphere from established players who understand that everyone was a beginner once, and who don’t make them feel self-conscious because of their lack of skill.)
Non-playing areas can also be set up to create a nicer environment for beginners, says de Boer. For instance, get extra copies of tennis- and racquet sports-related magazines to set out around the area. “People can pick up free magazines and get tips and instruction from them,” she notes. (Bonus: Catalogues or magazines showing apparel and equipment can convince new players to invest in the game.)
If there are nice places to relax, people will take advantage of the chance to unwind. Lockers or a safe place to store keys, phones and mp3 players will allow people to relax and enjoy their game. If this is an indoor facility, a TV tuned to tennis is a nice touch, while players are waiting for a court or relaxing after a match. In an outdoor area, a shaded bench or patio will be appreciated. If there is childcare at a club, great; if the courts are in a park, a playground situated near the court can also be put to good use. If there are courtside spectator seating areas, having lemonade or other refreshments can encourage new players to stick around and watch others play or receive instruction. The longer a person spends in the area, the more likely they are to meet others and feel like they’re part of a community — and the more likely they are to play even more tennis.
The Tennis Welcome Center
The Tennis Welcome Center initiative, which has been in existence since 2003, uses introductory programming for various age groups, from children through adults, and capitalizes on making the sport accessible and fun for new players. Banners publicizing the initiative are hung around the facility, and those interested can find a TWC at tenniswelcomecenter.com.
Tennis Welcome Centers may be neighborhood parks, commercial tennis clubs, health clubs, resorts, high schools and colleges, although de Boer says that under the right circumstances, even those settings can be expanded upon, if a pro or director wants to think outside the court. “A tennis retail shop could be a Tennis Welcome Center, and so could a tournament,” she says.
Clean, pleasant playing areas with room to relax are key to the experience, but so are other amenities. As the player grows in skills and experience, he or she may elect to try other programs, such as Cardio Tennis. Making a court conducive to this program is easy; it just takes attention to detail (see below).
In addition, says de Boer, those in charge of programming should never lose sight of the fact that players are hungry to learn, and that keeping them coming back can turn them into that coveted “frequent player” demographic — those who play at least 21 times a year and buy the majority of court time, equipment and apparel. Having tennis mixers, weekly clinics dedicated to specific strokes, round-robin play, leagues and ladders are all ways to involve newcomers and bring them back again and again.
“The industry is recognizing the role the tennis instructor plays,” de Boer notes. “It’s not just about getting them in the door, it’s about keeping them there. And that’s about making them feel welcome and taking care of them.”
Non-playing activities can also interest your new players. For example, try holding a discussion from a sports medicine specialist about tennis elbow, with tips from your pro on how to avoid it. Any activities that create a social dynamic and make players feel like the tennis facility is a fun place, a good escape, and sometimes even a second home, are what grow the game and keep new players coming back.
“We attract a lot of people to our sport, but what we’ve noticed is that we have a leaky bucket,” says de Boer. “Now we know what we have to do to get them in and keep them in.”
Pumping Up Cardio Tennis
According to Michele Krause, National Cardio Tennis Program Manager for the TIA, a good Cardio Tennis program can be a great selling point in any facility, so …
- Keep it in the public eye: Put your Cardio Tennis classes on a show court, or a front court, so that everyone sees how much fun they are. New players will get interested immediately.
- Room to play: Keep as much clear space behind the baseline and on the sides as possible, says Krause. This will create a safer environment since so much court is being covered by the players.
- Sound ideas: “A good sound system is a big part of a Cardio Tennis class, so easy access to electrical outlets is good, although there are great portable systems that run on battery.”
- Storage space: Krause recommends having a safe place to store the different types of balls, agility ladders, and other sideline tools such as spots, cones, etc.
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.